REMEMBERING LES BLANK
Les Is Still More
BY L. JOHN HARRIS
When I got the news that Les Blank had passed away on April 7, I was deeply saddened. But not surprised. Word of Les’s inoperable cancer leaked out last fall and everyone who knew him, personally and/or professionally, was shattered. Much-loved Les and his huge fan, friend, and family base made the best of a really bad situation.
Multiple screenings of his films over the next several months brought us all together with Les—perhaps for the last time—and a very moving ceremony at Berkeley City Hall on “Les Blank Day,” January 22, 2013, was fitting tribute to the impact Les and his artistically quirky and brilliant documentary films have had on our community.
When the 1980 film Garlic Is as Good as Ten Mothers was shown at the Pacific Film Archive last September as part of a retrospective, I showed up of course with my ceremonial garlic chef’s turban. No matter how many times I see the film, it’s always a hoot. Sure, I’m in it in all my youthful and, as I see it today, somewhat awkward allio-centricity. But even more important, for me, is to see, captured on film by Les’s always keen eye, all the characters that inhabited Garlicland (aka 1970s Berkeley) during those days of wine and stinking roses.
Les looked good at the PFA screening. He was very thin and I was a little jealous. I assumed it was due to his regular walks in the Berkeley Hills and I silently vowed to up my physical activity. Marilyn Rinzler, the owner of Berkeley’s Poulet, would see Les walking up Shasta Road past her house almost every day. “He was a vigorous walker and always alone, lost in his own thoughts,” she told me when she called after getting the news of Les’s passing.
After the screening, and not yet knowing about his illness, I wrote an article about the garlic film for Berkeleyside magazine (see article here.)
Though sent from Berkeley, Les’s New Orleans postcard depicted the Carousel, a circular bar in the French Quarter’s Monteleone hotel. (The card’s fine print boasts that the hotel’s 800 rooms are all “Equipped with TV.”)
This card was, as I look back, fate knocking on my door. And I was just about to send a copy of it to Les when the news came via email from his son, Harrod, that Les was gone. How many fortunate people have received a similar postcard from Les expressing interest in making a film with them? Well, how many films has Les Blank made? Lots.
Les Blank and I were garlic buds and our lives were woven together through the years like a lovely braid of garlic. Which is exactly how Les and his editor, Maureen Gosling, wove the disparate sections of the film together—like a braid.
The ending paragraphs of my Berkeleyside article best express my thoughts about Les and how he affected my life and the lives of so many:
“In a world where everyone today is a documentary filmmaker—with iPhones and digital video cameras recording every detail of our lives—Les Blank’s Garlic Is as Good as Ten Mothers, and indeed all of his films, reminds us that life is not art. And everything we say and do, captured so easily now by anyone with a digital device, is not a masterpiece.
Art is still what some of us, those with mysterious qualities we call vision and talent, make out of the stories that life presents. Blank has these qualities. He sees things we don’t and shows them to us. And luckily for my generation of food revolutionaries, once upon a time he focused on garlic.”
RIP, Les Blank. You will not be forgotten. And bon appétit!
Cooking with Les
By Gina Leibrecht
When I first met Les Blank in 1998, I was aware that he was a well-known documentary filmmaker. What I was most in awe of, however, were the experiences he’d had making those films. I was most impressed by the life he had lived. He had just returned from his second trip to China, where he was shooting the footage for All In This Tea, a project that I would eventually become involved in as his co-filmmaker. Working on the film turned us both into tea fanatics. Les would spend two hours every morning drinking two pots of a Yunnan Gold or maybe a Hung Lo from China while reading the New York Times.
Tea was just another chapter in Les’s lifetime of exploring culinary traditions through film, an exploration that always seemed to make its way into his own kitchen. Over the last 15 years I shared countless meals with Les at his home in Berkeley. I came to know his passion for garlic and persimmons, and his general sense of curiosity about culinary eccentricities like bottarga, turnips fermented in grape skins, and even bugs and worms! His favorite meats were lamb kidneys, lamb shanks, and sardines. (He always showed up at a barbecue with a plate of fresh sardines stuffed with garlic and wrapped in grape leaves ready for the grill.) Les could make a baked yam taste like a kitchen confection.
Les’s home cooking was exactly that: home cooking! His kitchen floor always seemed to be littered with garlic skins. Dinner usually consisted of chicken or wild salmon pierced with fresh garlic and grilled outdoors along with a variety of sliced vegetables. It was compelling in its simplicity. Served with a bottle of Vieux Télégraphe, it made the most mundane act of eating dinner special. One time after he uncorked a bottle of Châteauneuf-du-Pape, I said, “Hey! You should save that for a special occasion.” To which he replied, “This is a special occasion.” And Les would never have dinner without fresh cut flowers from the garden on the table and either Cajun tunes or some exotic music from a far corner of the world playing on the stereo.
For some reason that I can’t quite understand, Les’s appreciation for food and home cooking had a magical effect on my own cooking abilities. Whenever I cooked for him he would look over my shoulder, watching my every move, and I consistently produced what he said were “restaurant-quality” meals that he would happily have paid for. I made lamb chops in herbed butter with sautéed endive and scalloped potatoes. Pork chops stewed with plums from the backyard. Dover sole with fennel and Pernod. His presence in my kitchen turned me into a Michelin-star-bearing chef, a talent I have never been able to conjure up for anyone else.
And that is the magic of Les Blank. His spirit has made an indelible mark on me (among countless others), and to the end of my days, whenever I peel a clove of garlic, toss a chicken thigh onto a sizzling grill, or whip up an herb butter, I will feel him looking over my shoulder asking, “What’s that you’re doing?” I so wish I could tell him.
L. John Harris is a writer, artist, publisher and filmmaker. His recent book, Foodoodles: From the Museum of Culinary History (El Leon Literary Arts) won the Bay Area Independent Publisher’s Association 2011 award for “Best Graphic Memoir.” He is a featured contributor to the online food journal, Zester Daily. Mr. Harris lives in Berkeley and Paris, France and can be contacted at foodoodles.com.
Gina Leibrecht is a documentary filmmaker and editor residing in San Francisco. In 2007 she completed All In This Tea with the acclaimed documentarian Les Blank. She is currently finishing their second film together, How To Smell a Rose: A Visit with Ricky Leacock at His Farm in Normandy. ginaleibrecht.com
MR. GARLIC’S LAMB CHOPS SMOTHERED IN GARLIC